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Why do I keep snapping at my children – and how can I stop?

How can I stop snapping at my children? (Alamy/PA)
How can I stop snapping at my children? (Alamy/PA)

Parenting can be exhausting, stressful and frustrating – a combination that can make even the most mild-mannered people lose their cool sometimes and end up snapping at their children.

But one thing’s for sure – no one enjoys it. So, what’s going on?

“Most people become snappy or short-fused as a result of mounting stress and feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope,” explains consultant clinical psychologist Dr Nihara Krause (niharakrause.co.uk).

“This makes them oversensitive to anything that demands extra effort, since they’re already at the end of their reserves, and it also makes them more sensitive to feeling out of control in general. Parenting requires effort, even if the child or young person is the best behaved.”

And as psychologist and family therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari (kalanitbenari.com) points out: “No parents that I know wake up in the morning with an intention to ‘snap’. Yet many of us do. As a parent, you might feel overwhelmed or burned out by daily stresses. There will be times when parents will not be at their best, despite their best intentions – they are human.”

But snapping too often can impact children’s feelings and behaviour, notes Krause, who is also the founder of the teenage mental health charity stem4 (stem4.org.uk). “The loss of control a parent expresses can either make a child or young person feel anxious, or impact on their efforts to control their own behaviour,” she explains.

Ben-Ari says when there’s constant aggression at home, children experience a lack of connection, and their emotional needs are unmet. “This creates hurt and defensive behaviour to cope,” she says. “For some, it can come through as behavioural challenges, aggression, regression in development – eg. wetting the bed or fear of sleeping alone – and for others the stress will be directed inwards, for example into depression, or having unhealthy eating habits.”

So, how can you try to stop snapping at your children?

Managing stress

“Identify areas of stress in yourself and think about positive ways you can deal with them,” suggests Krause. This may include  self-care strategies such as regular exercise, taking regular breaks in a busy day, eating regularly, and doing something you find relaxing.

Prioritise

You may well have a lengthy to-do list, but Krause advises parents to put what needs dealing with in a “hierarchy” then working through the most necessary and important ones, including finances, health, and bills. “Drop some of the minor ones off your list,” she suggests.

Don’t take your child’s behaviour personallyTry and see the way your child is acting as simply part of their development that needs steering in the right direction, rather than something said or done to get at you.

“Instead of taking the child’s behaviour personally, they should view it as a developmental impulse that needs guidance, healthy boundaries, love, connection and care,” explains Ben-Ari.

Recognise how stress feels

Try to be aware of stressful triggers, and notice the build-up of tension in yourself – such as having a tight stomach and feeling irritable. “Take yourself out of a situation to calm,” Krause advises.

Ben-Ari says parents can use simple and effective techniques to notice their stress level before it’s out of control. “Although the behaviour might feel like a ‘snap’, there are usually many early signs of the stress that builds up,” she notes – like shortness of breath, warm hands, sweating, and a racing heart.

“Taking a pause and several deep breaths, observing the child, the situation and yourself, grounding yourself with a mantra, and at times asking for support from a partner so you can have a break to calm yourself, can all prevent out of control behaviours.”

Remember just apologising isn’t enough

While parents do need to apologise if they snap at their kids, taking steps to prevent it happening is what really matters. “Apologising for flying off the handle is important,” says Krause, “but if this happens too many times, neither the words you say nor the apology has impact.”

Calmly express your tension verbally

Tell your kids how you’re feeling when you’re stressed or tense, Krause suggests: “Work on recognising the build-up of tension, and being able to express it in a sentence such as, ‘I’m in an orange/red zone at the moment so I need to go and do some things that help me into a green’. This is also modelling emotional regulation to your child.”

Is there an underlying problem?Snapping might be a symptom of an underlying problems, suggests Ben-Ari. “Maybe they feel work-life responsibilities are out of balance, or maybe a transition is underway, like changing career or taking care of an unwell family member. Perhaps they need to voice how they feel with their partner, or deal with historical trauma. All these will impact the way they parent,” she says.

“Move away from being a reactive parent, into being an intentional and conscious parent. A well-intended and loving parent may need help and support in dealing with their past or present stresses to become the parent they want to be.”

Be warm and loving

Krause says parents who’ve been snappy should try not to worry about it too much or feel guilty and helpless about the potential long-term impact on their child. “Children and young people will be more resilient to such behaviour if they’ve also received lots of love and warmth from you, so they can contrast the snappiness against this and see it as something that’s unusual,” she says.

Accept you can’t control everything

“Accept there are things you can’t control, and work on the things you can,” adds Krause. “That includes yourself – for example, you can control going to bed half an hour earlier, you can work on controlling negative thoughts.”

Pick your battles

Some things just aren’t worth getting snappy about, and Krause advises parents to remember to pick their battles, pointing out: “Perhaps a tidy bedroom can wait.”

Seek help if necessary

If you’ve tried to deal with your stress yet your snappiness persists, see it as a red flag and get some help with stress and/or anger management, Krause advises.